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A close call for swissinfo

Up to 80 jobs would go under the planned restructuring of swissinfo

(swissinfo.ch)

Plans to dismantle swissinfo – by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation - provoked protests from Swiss living abroad as well as opposition in parliament.

Both houses of parliament want to renew government funding for Switzerland's international information platform, but swissinfo's future still hangs in the balance.

It was to have been a year of festivities to celebrate the 70th anniversary of swissinfo/Swiss Radio International. Instead, 2005 was more like an extended period on death row for the "Voice of Switzerland abroad".

On March 22, the management of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SRG SSR idée suisse), swissinfo's parent company, announced that it was effectively intending to dismantle its nine-language news and current affairs service by the end of the year.

Financial savings

The decision was motivated primarily by forecasts of lower revenues for the SBC in the coming years.

In particular, the new Federal Law on Radio and Television (LRTV), first presented to parliament in March 2004, is likely to deprive the public broadcaster of tens of millions of francs.

During the early debates on the LRTV, parliament foresaw that central government would no longer be able to cover half the cost of running swissinfo.

As a result, the SBC Board of Directors decided to make drastic cuts to its foreign service. Its position was that it is not the public broadcaster's responsibility to bear the whole burden of funding swissinfo, since the government was no longer willing to share the cost.

If the SBC plans were to be implemented, only an English-language service would be left to keep the outside world informed about Switzerland.

To continue to provide news and information for Swiss expatriates, the SBC management planned to upgrade the websites of its regional units, which broadcast in German, French and Italian.

Protests from the Swiss abroad

However, the plans announced by the public broadcaster provoked sharp reactions from the "Fifth Switzerland" – Swiss living abroad. Particularly strong were protests from Swiss communities in other parts of Europe, where two thirds of the more than 620,000 Swiss expatriates live.

In a series of resolutions, Swiss Abroad associations expressed "consternation" and "indignation" at the decision to dismantle swissinfo and asked the SBC to change its mind.

"To meet the specific information needs of the Fifth Switzerland, it is necessary to maintain an autonomous enterprise unit specialised in this type of activity," was the substance of the resolution adopted by the Swiss expatriates living in Italy.

"swissinfo is our source of information. The internet platform should be maintained in its present form," was the demand of the Swiss citizens resident in the United Kingdom. "swissinfo is Switzerland's visiting card, and it must not be surrendered," echoed the Swiss community in Spain.

The same message emerged from the Congress of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad, held in September in Interlaken, during which the chairman of the SBC board, Jean-Bernard Münch, admitted that he had "underestimated the Fifth Switzerland's attachment to swissinfo".

Parliament intervenes

Within Switzerland, the plans to dismantle swissinfo have been criticised by, among others, the foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, parliamentarians, cantonal authorities, political parties, trade unions, professional bodies (including journalists), foreign ambassadors, immigrant communities and cultural circles.

Parliament has also affirmed the importance of swissinfo as a bridge between Switzerland and the rest of the world.

Partly on the grounds that the SBC could not decide the future of swissinfo without first knowing the outcome of parliamentary debate on the LRTV, in June the Senate approved a motion put forward by Ticino senator Filippo Lombardi.

Essentially, the motion asked the government to safeguard swissinfo's present services, prevent the transfer of its mandate to the corporation's regional units, and renew its funding for the news and current affairs portal.

In September, the House of Representatives, in revising the LRTV, agreed to a proposal that 50 per cent of swissinfo's budget should be paid for by government.

In November, the Senate followed suit. The remaining differences regarding the LRTV should be resolved in March.

SBC not backing down

However, despite the support it enjoys in parliament, swissinfo's future is by no means assured: the SBC has already aired a new restructuring plan for 2006.

In December, the SBC board asked the management of swissinfo to analyse, by the spring, "all possible ways of producing a less expensive service," by making greater use of synergies with the other business units and outsourcing its IT services.

According to the SSM trade union, which represents journalists, the SBC's demand is a first step towards the dismantling of swissinfo. The union says the SBC is therefore ignoring the will of parliament.

The SBC management rejects the suggestion, saying its plan conforms to the mandate it has from government to keep the Swiss Abroad informed about their homeland.

swissinfo, Armando Mombelli

Key facts

Founded in 1935, swissinfo/Swiss Radio International's mandate is to make Switzerland known abroad and provide information for Swiss expatriates.
Over 620,000 Swiss citizens are resident abroad, more than two thirds of them in other European countries.
Almost 100,000 members of the Fifth Switzerland are registered to vote in federal elections and referenda.

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In brief

On March 22, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation announced plans to dismantle swissinfo, axe 70–80 jobs and maintain only its English-language service.

On June 9, the senate approved a motion put forward by Filippo Lombardi, asking the government to safeguard swissinfo's existing services and prevent the transfer of its mandate to the SBC's regional enterprise units.

On September 22, the house of representatives agreed to a proposal whereby the federal government would again cover half of swissinfo's budget.

On November 30, the senate decided that in future the Confederation should provide at least half of this funding.

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